Cubana sweet fifteen

January 31, 2013

Havana, Cuba

By Desmond Boylan

“I started saving up for my daughters’ quinceañera party [coming-out celebration for 15-year-olds] over five years ago,” says Marlen, the mother of Carmen, who reached the age of fifteen this month. “I managed to put away money every month, by doing some odd jobs, separating some also from my husband’s retirement pension and adding to that some help from my family in the east of the country, plus selling off some worn out clothes and repairing other garments.”

Marlen managed to save just over 8,000 Cuban pesos, close to $300.

In Cuba’s economy, you cannot just go to the bank and ask for a loan; there is no culture of credit. All payments must be made in cash, so if you want to buy something you must cough up the whole cost at the moment of purchase. With the average monthly salary around $18, it’s not easy to save. But as the Cubans say, it is not easy but it is not difficult either. The amount saved up for the quinceañera celebration is huge for parents and is a really admirable amount for an average Cuban family to achieve. In this case, merit is even higher as it was done mostly by Carmen’s mother.

All Cuban girls dream of having a special quinceañera celebration. It really is a big deal for them, as big as, or even bigger than, a wedding. It is also especially expensive as the costs must be borne by just one family.

But Carmen’s dream finally did come true.

During my research I learned that in Cuba there is a profitable industry that moves around quinceañeras. At the high end, people like Cuban-Americans travel to the island and spend thousands of dollars on the occasion. They hire special houses with full photographic studios where pictures are taken, rent expensive dresses, produce sophisticated invitations, pay for photo books, rent five-star hotels and limousines and vintage cars.

People with fewer resources also have their celebrations, simpler and less costly, but a lot of effort and saving is involved. This was the case of Carmen’s, which was done on a much lower budget, but nevertheless the process was very arduous and tortuous.

Extremely complicated and long preparations had to be made and executed. A party had to be arranged, dresses rented, a makeup artist hired, a long process of manicure and pedicure endured, complex hair treatment done, a photographer and videographer with their assistants hired, even a vintage car rented to give Carmen a spin around the city.

I never thought I would have to do so much explaining to convince them that I would not get in the way. For me it was very important to witness the key preparations like the manicure, pedicure, and hairdressing, all vital for my picture story.

At first they only wanted me to shoot pictures once she looked beautiful and posed, because she was too shy to be seen during the process. I also had to assure them that I would keep out of the way when Carmen was changing clothes. I promised I would be just a fly on the wall, and in the end, I was allowed to follow and document the preparations.

Carmen is an extremely shy girl, and her mother is also shy and protective of her daughter. It would be one of the most important events, if not the most important event, in both their lives, and they were not going to allow any interference or distraction at all.

After the celebration was over, Marlen told me, “I reached obsession levels about this and now I realize the amount of thought and dedication I have given it for over five years has been immense. Now I am so relieved and happy that I managed to give my daughter this. I am ecstatic I was able to give her what I didn’t get when I turned 15. I was so worried something would go wrong. I actually could not sleep during the last few days, now I feel like going to bed for a full week.”

After days of waiting around, talking my way around shyness and other obstacles like waiting hours for fuzzy hair to be straightened, I shot the pictures and documented the whole process for this picture story, which included a party with a huge roasted pig and food and drinks for many people.

At one point, when I was hanging half my body out of the side of a vehicle to shoot pictures of Carmen riding in a vintage car around Havana, I was thinking to myself, “How on earth can Cubans manage to get so much done with so little?”

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